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Beatrice "Joan" Lester

She Went by Joan: Beatrice Lester, Our Mysterious Benefactor

November 10, 2021

Every now and then, the Albright-Knox receives gifts from the estate of someone who has passed away. We are always honored by these gifts and the thoughtfulness and vision they convey.

Often, these are gifts we had previously been notified we would receive. Occasionally there is a surprise, but when those surprises come in, we most often recognize the donor’s name as someone who was very much a presence in the life of the museum. We most often know their family or their children, and we can call them to express our gratitude and fold them into the Albright-Knox community, if they aren’t already.

But not too long ago, we had a mystery to solve. From a small law firm in a town just outside of Buffalo, we received the Last Will and Testament from a woman named Beatrice Lester. None of us knew her, she had a spotty and recent membership record, and not even the reliable veterans of the Albright-Knox staff knew her. Her obituary said very little. But it named us as the recipient of the balance of her estate—everything she had—after her expenses and executors had been paid.

This presented something of a puzzle for us. Who was this woman and why did she choose the museum as a place for her legacy? We began to dig, calling the attorney, who led us to her executrix, Patricia. And this is what we learned:

Beatrice went by Joan, and she was a longtime resident of a very rural area in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. She was deeply involved in politics and met her friend Patricia, or Pat, when, thirty years ago, they both sat on the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. Joan was the chair and Pat was voted in as her secretary. That began their lifelong friendship.

Joan had also worked in higher education, and for ExxonMobil. It sounds like she was a talented administrator and businesswoman. She married a few times but outlived her partners and never had her own children.

Shop AK. Photo: Tom Loonan for Albright-Knox Art Gallery

About five years ago, as Patricia said, Joan no longer identified with the values of her surrounding community. So, in her seventies, she boldly decided to move to the largest local city with a major art museum: Buffalo. She got a small apartment on West Ferry Street and moved here with her dog. She made new friends, bought a membership at the Albright-Knox, and fell in love with the museum soon before it closed for renovations. It sounded like her relationship with the museum was rather short lived. When asked what she liked most, Pat said it was a regular habit for Joan to pop into the gift shop and buy postcards or other small things and share them with friends.

Whether Joan felt welcome and safe here, inspired by the exhibitions or stimulated by the programming, or if she was just happy to meet a smiling face while buying gifts for her friends, we are proud that she cared about the Albright-Knox so much—and we are moved by her generosity. Joan’s gift is ultimately helping to build the future Buffalo AKG Art Museum. In honor of her surprising generosity, her name will be proudly displayed among other patrons on the second floor Sculpture Terrace of the brand-new Jeffrey E. Gundlach Building.

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